Before the Boeing Disaster, the Company Lobbied Lawmakers to Deregulate Airplane Safety

Despite allegations of “excessive” defects ahead of the recent Boeing disaster, the company and its parts supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, used their deep pockets to lobby Washington to reduce safety regulations.

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX-9 aircraft grounded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) in Seattle, Washington, on January 6, 2024. (David Ryder / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The manufacturers of the door plug that blew out of a jetliner last week have used their deep pockets and connections in Washington, DC, to reduce safety regulations, pressure federal officials, and boost production after two previous crashes and other safety incidents, records show.

The campaign donations, lobbying money, and regulatory waivers underscore critics’ assertions that Boeing and its long-time parts supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, have used their political influence in both parties to endanger air passengers.

Last week’s high-altitude debacle — in which a door plug manufactured by Spirit blew off an Alaska Airlines plane mid-flight over Portland, Oregon — followed two Boeing aircraft crashes in 2018 and 2019 that together killed 346 people, and another fatal incident in 2018 that saw a woman partially sucked out of a plane when a small engine explosion shattered a window.

On Monday, the Lever reported allegations from Spirit employees of “excessive” defects in the supplier’s manufacturing. According to court documents, the workers said they were instructed to conceal the problems. Some workers who spoke up were fired, according to allegations stemming from a new federal lawsuit.

While Spirit workers were allegedly being told to falsify inspection reports and ship out products to Boeing “as quickly as possible,” the company was doling out campaign cash to lawmakers who then fought for the company’s interests in Washington.

In one instance, Republican representative Ron Estes (KS) — one of the top recipients of Spirit-affiliated campaign cash — pressured the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over its previous grounding of the 737 MAX. As Spirit faced potential profit losses from the grounding, Estes insisted that the FAA’s extended process of recertifying the airplane after two crashes was resulting in “negative repercussions” and warned that “until recertification [of the Boeing 737 MAX] is complete,” Spirit and its workers would suffer.

In another instance, Democratic senator Maria Cantwell (WA) — who has received nearly $200,000 in contributions from Boeing’s political action committee and employees — pushed through legislation to exempt Boeing’s 737 MAX models from a looming safety deadline that would have required changes in their alerting systems. The move came despite concerns from the families of the passengers who died in the 2018 and 2019 crashes.

Over the last four years, Boeing and Spirit’s political action committees and employees have together reported spending more than $65 million on lobbying and federal campaign contributions. That includes Spirit donors spending $210,000 lobbying Congress on “advanced aviation manufacturing” and other issues in the first three quarters of 2023, disclosures show.

In the first three quarters of 2023, Boeing donors spent more than $10.6 million — the sixteenth most of any US company — lobbying the White House, lawmakers, the FAA, and other regulators on “Aviation safety,” certifications, and other issues. The company’s lobbying expenditures have ranged between $12.6 million and $15.2 million annually since 2018.

Of late, Boeing has been pressing regulators at the FAA to weaken safety standards for its new 737 MAX 7 models.

There’s mounting evidence that Boeing has known about myriad safety issues and critics say the company has done little to properly address them. Boeing officials were aware of the faulty safety sensors that led to crashes in 2018 and 2019.

In fact, messages sent between 2015 and 2018 among Boeing employees shows how they joked that the 737 MAX planes were “designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.” Messages also show employees bragging about how they tricked a federal aviation regulator by “making them feel stupid” for trying to require additional training.

Boeing officials are also aware of potentially deadly side effects from an anti-ice system that can cause engine parts to overheat and break off mid-flight, but are seeking a safety exemption to allow the parts to be used.

“I think the culture that still prevails at the top management levels of Boeing is ‘We’re watching the stock price.’ Safety and quality are a secondary concern,” former representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and former chair of the House Transportation Committee, told the Lever. “The FAA has to finally hold the line with Boeing. It’s time for that company to clean up their act.”

DeFazio added, “Do we want to put thousands of more planes in the air that have the same defect? How many years is that going to take [to fix]?”

Neither Boeing nor Spirit replied to the Lever’s requests for comment for this story.

In response to earlier questions related to the recent incident in Portland, a spokesperson from Spirit AeroSystems said over email, “A Spirit team is now supporting the [National Transportation Safety Board]’s investigation directly. As a company, we remain focused on the quality of each aircraft structure that leaves our facilities.”

Boeing CEO David Calhoun said the aircraft company needs to address the current near-catastrophe involving the door plug with “complete transparency.”

“We’re gonna approach it with 100 percent and complete transparency every step of the way,” Calhoun said at a town hall with Boeing employees on Tuesday. “We are going to work with the [National Transportation Safety Board], who is investigating the accident itself to find out what the cause is.”

“Do Everything Necessary to Get the 737 MAX Safely Back in the Air”

After the two devastating fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, which involved faulty control systems that caused planes to nosedive, the FAA, following the lead of authorities around the world, in March 2019 grounded Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft until it determined the planes could be flown safely and could recertify them for normal operation.

The delay in rolling out Boeing’s flagship new model represented a major financial blow for Boeing, but also for the airplane company’s suppliers, like Spirit, which makes the 737 MAX’s fuselages — the main body of the airplanes. Company executives have said that Spirit makes 70 percent of the 737 MAX’s structure.

Spirit was established in 2005 as a spinoff company from Boeing, and Boeing remains Spirit’s primary customer, representing as much as 60 percent of the company’s revenue, according to Spirit’s most recent annual report. After the 737 MAXs were grounded in 2019, the supplier’s revenue at one point plummeted by 58 percent year over year, executives told investors on an earnings call in November 2020.

By December 2019, with uncertainty hanging over the FAA’s recertification process for the 737 MAX, reports were circulating that Boeing planned to pause production of the plane entirely. In January 2020, Spirit AeroSystems — fearing the pause would send the company into a financial tailspin — announced it would lay off twenty-eight hundred workers.

In Washington, lawmakers, well funded by Spirit, stepped in.

On January 10, 2020, shortly after the layoffs were proposed, Senator Jerry Moran (KS) — the senior Republican on the Senate subcommittee overseeing aviation safety — issued a statement saying he had spoken with both Boeing’s then-brand-new CEO, former Blackstone exec Calhoun and the FAA administrator at the time, Stephen Dickson, urging them to “do everything necessary to get the 737 MAX safely back in the air.”

At the time, Spirit was — and remains — a top campaign contributor to Moran. Since 2019, the company has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Moran and political action committees working to reelect him, campaign finance data shows, making Spirit the number-two donor to Moran in recent years.

Asked about Moran’s relationship with Spirit, Tom Brandt, a spokesperson for the senator, pointed to a series of tweets Moran posted about the Alaska Airlines incident on Tuesday that did not mention the company.

“I am closely monitoring this investigation to ensure the safety of the flying public,” Moran wrote in one tweet. “For the thousands of Kansans who work in aviation, their jobs depend on the passengers feeling safe to fly.”

Another key recipient of Spirit cash is Estes, whose district includes Wichita, where Spirit is based. The aviation giant’s political action committee and employees are collectively Estes’s biggest career contributor. Four days after Moran’s statement, Estes, too, intervened.

On January 14, 2020, Estes wrote a letter to the FAA, which began by praising the agency for “its willingness to treat the ongoing Boeing 737 MAX situation with caution,” but then warned that Spirit, and its workers, were being “jeopardized” by pausing construction on the 737 MAX.

“I am concerned that the FAA is following a process for returning the 737 MAX to service that is not guided by a defined process with standards, expectations, and a schedule,” he wrote, saying that suppliers were “wondering what prerequisites the FAA will demand and for how long their livelihoods will be impacted.”

Estes did not respond to the Lever’s requests for comment.

Two weeks later, on January 30, 2020, Spirit announced that it had come to an agreement with Boeing to resume limited production of the 737 MAX, although the plane had not yet been recertified. Yet the pressure from lawmakers didn’t entirely ease.

“I look forward to Spirit’s ultimate return to robust production levels,” Moran wrote in a statement the same day.

With the onset of the pandemic, conditions worsened yet again for Spirit, as the aviation industry ground to a halt worldwide. The supplier went through additional rounds of layoffs — which former employees in the December 2023 lawsuit said impacted the quality of its manufacturing.

In September 2020, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, then cochaired by DeFazio, released a 238-page report on the Boeing 737 MAX crashes, detailing “a horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

Two months later, on November 18, 2020, Dickson, then the head of the FAA, signed an order that allowed for Boeing’s 737 MAX aircrafts to return to commercial operations after certain criteria were met, including design changes and updated training requirements.

The FAA said the planes were allowed to return to service after a twenty-month safety review process during which “FAA employees worked diligently to identify and address the safety issues that played a role in the tragic loss of 346 lives aboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.”

Moran and Estes both helped secure Spirit more than $75 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars in September 2021 — the largest federal award at the time in the aviation industry.

The airline industry, which is considered essential to American travel and commerce, was given an enormous lifeline to avoid laying off workers and resume regular travel when it was designated safe. Instead, major carriers laid off workers anyway, rewarded executives with huge bonuses, and were ill-prepared for travel to resume despite receiving billions of dollars to retain workers.

Amid all the financial strain — both from the 737 MAX grounding and the pandemic — workers said in the federal lawsuit that Spirit cultivated a culture of production over quality, as it worked to ramp back up the production of Boeing’s 737 MAX, with support from lawmakers like Moran and Estes. (Spirit told the Lever Wednesday it “strongly disagrees” with the claims made in the lawsuit, but has not provided additional specifics.)

The company, one worker said, “just wanted to ship its completed products as quickly as possible.”

Ticket to Ride

Spirit’s political spending, however, pales in comparison to what Boeing spends to woo lawmakers in Washington.

Boeing has a history of lobbying lawmakers on safety regulations, dating back to at least 2017. Since 2020, Boeing has spent nearly $50 million lobbying Congress, the White House, the FAA, and a slew of other federal regulators on issues including aviation safety, aircraft certifications, COVID relief money, weapons sales, and space exploration, disclosures show.

Before two deadly crashes involving Boeing planes in 2018 and 2019, Boeing “helped craft” and “shap[ed] the language” of a bill that weakens the government’s ability to approve designs of new airplanes, the New York Times reported in 2019. That bill was passed into law in 2018, just weeks before a Boeing plane crashed in Indonesia.

Cantwell, chair of the Senate panel that oversees the airline industry, represents Washington State, where Boeing was founded. Boeing representatives also currently serve as members on a subcommittee for the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC), which is tasked with recommending airline industry regulations, including safety oversight.

In 2019, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called ARAC a “clandestine committee” that acts as a “proverbial blanket with their lack of transparency and the comfortable cover they provide for companies like Boeing.”

Schumer pushed for Boeing representatives to no longer be included as formal members of ARAC, a move that was seemingly granted — but the airline manufacturer currently has representatives on an ARAC subcommittee called the Transport Aircraft and Engines Subcommittee.

In Boeing’s recent troubles, its close connections to Washington have paid off. At the end of 2022, the company was facing a looming FAA deadline to update safety features for the cockpits on two versions of its 737 fleets — the MAX 7 and 10 — which it was set to miss.

Instead of complying with requirements for new and retrofitted technology, as other aviation manufacturers did, the company and its lobbyists descended on Washington, pushing for an exemption from lawmakers, claiming that its current model was safe and could still win FAA certification.

Key players in the negotiations had received big money from both Boeing and the aviation industry as a whole. One was Cantwell, who has received more than $90,000 from Boeing donors over the last two election cycles. According to OpenSecrets, she is among the top three recipients of aviation industry dollars in Congress, receiving $82,613 in the first three quarters of 2023 alone.

Other lawmakers pushed for an extension for Boeing with even fewer strings attached — including Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), who has received $57,000 from Boeing donors over the past several election cycles. Like Cantwell, Wicker serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Ultimately, after lawmakers proposed exemptions for Boeing in a defense spending bill that were nixed, Boeing managed to secure the waiver, which contained limited additional safety requirements, in a must-pass omnibus spending bill in December 2022. The move came despite the resolute opposition of the families of the victims of the 2018 and 2019 fatal 737 MAX crashes.

The whole saga was a “classic example,” said Ed Pierson, a former senior Boeing employee who now leads the nonprofit Foundation for Aviation Safety, of how Boeing has managed to successfully leverage its “lobbying horsepower” in Washington, even amid public outcry about safety. And it has continued to push for safety exemptions.

“This is going to require a lot of ongoing attention,” Pierson said of the systemic issues at Boeing. “The FAA is really asleep at the wheel. And they’ve been asleep at the wheel for a while.”

Boeing’s regulatory capture has been well-reported, in Seattle and in Washington, DC, the FAA had been considered the global aviation industry’s gold standard since it was established in 1958. But by 2006, the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency, was warning the FAA that their programs were becoming ineffective because of their tight relationships with and lax supervision of industry leaders like Boeing.

The FAA was one of the last regulators across the globe to ground the 737 MAX planes following the two crashes in 2018 and 2019.

Most recently, Boeing asked the FAA for an exemption for safety standards relating to anti-ice systems of its still-uncertified 737 MAX 7 plane. An anti-ice system failure caused the 2018 accident in which a passenger was partially sucked out of a shattered plane window and killed.

The Foundation for Aviation Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for additional oversight and safety regulation in the aviation industry, warned that if Boeing received the new exemptions, a defect in the system could lead to “a potentially catastrophic failure.”

Less than one month later, the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 took off from Portland.